Michelle Obama, the nation’s pre-eminent childhood nutritionist, has been arguing that much of the childhood obesity problem is due to the fact that too many urban children live in “food deserts,” lacking access to fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. But, as the New York Times’ Gina Kolata reports today, it isn’t true:
But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents. . .
It was difficult to design a study that could rigorously answer the questions: Do poor urban neighborhoods lack places to buy fresh produce and is that contributing to obesity? But Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, found a way. For data on where children lived and went to school and how much they weighed, she used a federal study of 8,000 children. For data on the location of food establishments, she used a data set that compiled all the businesses in the nation and included their sizes and locations.
“I knew where the children lived, so let’s take the middle of that neighborhood,” Dr. Lee said. “What is the nearest grocery store? What is the nearest convenience store?”
She used census tracts to define neighborhoods because they tend to have economically homogeneous populations. Poor neighborhoods, Dr. Lee found, had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile. Her study, financed by the institute, was published in the March issue of Social Science and Medicine.
Dr. Sturm’s study, published in February in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, had a different design. With financing from the National Institutes of Health, he used data on the self-reported heights, weights, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and teenagers in the California Health Interview Survey. The survey included the students’ addresses and the addresses of their schools. He used a different data set to see what food outlets were nearby. Dr. Sturm found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes.
I should point out in passing, by the way, that Gina Kolata is an exceptional Times reporter who often contests the conventional wisdom of the left on health and environmental issues, so kudos to her. Last summer she debunked the claim than male sperm counts are falling (which we noted here on Power Line), and back in 2006 Kolata wrote a long feature entitled, “Environment and Cancer: The Links Are Elusive.” Kolata reported that “most scientists think that only a tiny fraction of cancers might be caused by low levels of environmental poisons,” and cites Dr. Richard Peto of Oxford University, co-author of one of the largest epidemiological studies of cancer in the early 1980s: “Pollution is not a major determinant of U.S. cancer rates.”
The Times ought to get more reporters like her, and fewer columnists like Friedman and Krugman.